Babies typically say their first words between 7–12 months of age. But all babies develop at different speeds. Many start talking later than average, and this is rarely a cause for concern.

Health experts can suggest timelines about when babies, on average, reach milestones, such as using their first words. In general, most babies say their first words before 1 year of age. However, all babies develop language at different rates.

Below, we explore when babies start talking, how they learn a language, and what could cause delays.

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Babies reach language milestones at different rates, and this is completely normal.

On average, they say their first words between 7–12 months of age and are constructing coherent sentences by 2–3 years of age.

Language develops alongside other skills, such as those relating to movement. As a result, many babies say their first words close to when they start walking — at about 12 months.

Learning a verbal language is a complex process. It helps a baby express their needs and can provide crucial insight about the rest of the world.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer the following approximate timeline of language development:

  • 0–3 months: Babies recognize parental voices and make sounds that express their feelings.
  • 4–6 months: They respond to changes in tone, follow sounds with their eyes, and babble.
  • 7 months to 1 year: They understand basic words, respond to simple requests, and use their hands to communicate. Toward the end of this period, they may use a few words.
  • 1–2 years: Babies understand basic questions, follow stories, and regularly pick up new words. They may also start to put words together to ask questions or express needs.
  • 2–3 years: Toddlers start to string phrases together and speak coherently. They can usually refer to most things around them.
  • 3–4 years: They can describe activities, use more complex sentences, and speak more fluently.
  • 4–5 years: They use detailed sentences, tell stories, and can communicate easily with others.

A person can help encourage the development of language. If a baby is reaching these milestones more slowly, they may benefit from additional support from parents and other caregivers or a speech professional.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommend the following ways to help babies and toddlers at different stages:

Birth to 2 years

To help with the development of language skills:

  • Respond when the baby laughs and makes faces or sounds.
  • Use sounds like “ma” and “da.”
  • Speak to them.
  • Narrate the world around them, such as by counting or describing the colors of objects.
  • Read to the baby.
  • Use gestures, such as pointing.

2–4 years

A person should:

  • Speak clearly, with good grammar, to the toddler.
  • Repeat what they say back to them.
  • Extend their words into sentences.
  • Help them ask questions.
  • Ask them to choose from a few options, such as by asking what they would like for dinner.
  • Sing songs and nursery rhymes.
  • Present pictures or objects and ask questions about them.

4–6 years

With a child in this age range, a person should:

  • Praise their speech.
  • Work on locations, such as by asking them to “Pick up the toy in the middle.”
  • Describe objects and ask the child to identify them.
  • Describe categories, such as barnyard animals, and ask the child for examples.
  • Ask them to give directions or describe where something is.
  • Take them along on daily activities and discuss these.
  • Also, discuss the stages or stories of a game, book, or TV show.

A variety of factors can influence the development of language. In many cases, exercising patience and taking additional steps to support speech development is all that is needed.

In some children, delays in language indicate speech disorders. However, these are relatively uncommon.

In the United States, around 5% of children and teens aged 3–17 years have had a speech disorder lasting at least 1 week in the past 12 months. In the same time frame, 3% of kids in this age range have had a language disorder lasting at least a week.

Meanwhile, having a hearing disorder may affect the development of language. In the U.S., 2–3 in every 1,000 children experience hearing problems from birth.

Some signs of a speech, language, or hearing disorder in babies and young children include:

  • 0–3 months: The baby may not smile or interact.
  • 4–7 months: They may not babble.
  • 7–12 months: They rarely make sounds and use no gestures.
  • 7 months to 2 years: A baby or toddler may say few words and have trouble understanding others.
  • 2–3 years: They may say fewer than 50 words and rarely communicate or play with other children.
  • 2.5–3 years: They may have difficulty with the beginning stages of reading and writing.

All babies develop differently — some pick up language right away, while others do not. Some babies start speaking early but take longer than expected to use coherent sentences.

In most cases, delays in language development do not indicate a disorder. But some babies and young children need additional support and activities that encourage speech.

Less often, a speech, language, or hearing disorder is involved, and the signs may be present from an early age. It is important to bring these up with a healthcare professional.

It is also important to attend all recommended pediatrician appointments, and the doctor should discuss the child’s development at each. Use the opportunity to ask questions and raise any concerns.

Health experts offer rough timelines about when babies, on average, reach milestones such as using their first words. However, all babies develop language at different rates.

Relatively rarely, a disorder is responsible for delayed language development. If a child shows any signs of a speech, language, or hearing disorder, contact a healthcare provider.